The role of digital in improving traceability and certification in the agricultural last mile

The demand for traceable and certified agricultural products is on the rise in global markets as international consumers demand more transparency and accountability in supply chains. The growing popularity of concepts such as farm to fork, emphasise full visibility into food chains for consumers as well as producers. The need to support traceable and certified production is strong in developing countries, where smallholder farmers produce and sell cash crops for international markets such as coffee, cocoa and cotton.

While the benefits of traceability and certification are clear for both buyers and sellers of crops in agricultural value chains, there are still significant challenges in implementing such schemes. The process of getting certified is long and expensive, for example, organic certification processes can take up to five years and getting producers to commit the resources to comply with standards can be difficult. Farmers often do not see the value of meeting standards. Certification audits have become their worst nightmares and compliance to standards such as wearing protective gear while spraying chemicals only when they know auditors are due to come around.

Manual data recording also frustrates the process as forms and questionnaires are stored in files. However, mobile systems supporting traceability and certification must be intelligent and flexible enough to not only extract quality farmer and historical farm data for the benefit of the buyer, but to also ensure farmers understand the value of such schemes and receive adequate training on the practices required to become certified.


The challenges of doing “track and trace” with pen and paper

The vast majority of certification schemes still rely entirely on pen and paper.  The challenges faced by agribusinesses and farmers to ensure traceability and certification of products with paper-based systems is well represented by the experiences of the Rainforest Alliance, an NGO that designs standards for certified production with the objective of conserving biodiversity, while supporting sustainable livelihoods through capacity building and better terms of trade for farmers’ products.

In a recent panel discussion hosted by the GSMA mAgri team at Mobile 360 – Africa 2018, Michael Orang’i Onchabo the field liaison for East and Southern Africa at The Rainforest Alliance, spoke about using paper-based Internal Management Systems (IMS) – a documented set of procedures to comply with certification standards – to track compliance in groups of up to 4,000 farmers. Using paper-based IMSs makes it impossible for field officers to access data in real time and greatly reduces the opportunity to record critical information on the characteristics and farming practices of farmer group members while in the field. This significantly challenges the ability of  Rainforest Alliance farmer group administrators and farmer trainers to guide group management decisions, assess and manage non-compliance patterns and risks, and target training efforts to meet farmers’ needs most effectively.

The experience of  Producers Direct, a farmer-led organisation that supports small-scale farmers improve their livelihoods, also highlights the challenges of using traditional paper-based systems. At Mobile 360 – Africa 2018 Boniface Lwanda Keya, the Africa Manager at Producers Direct, discussed how paper-based systems make it difficult to log and share farmer progress correctly, making it impossible to include farmers in a meaningful feedback loop to reinforce the value of certification to them and help improve their on-farm decision making.


How can digital tools support traceability and certification?

To comply with an increasing number of standards to meet traceability and certification schemes, companies in the agricultural sector that procure crops from farmers are increasingly looking to implement so-called track and trace systems, a range of mobile-enabled tools that link farmer and farm data to a commodity flow through the related supply chain. These tools enable agribusinesses to have full visibility into the agricultural last mile, maintain a digital record of suppliers and facilitate auditing processes for certification requirements. Importantly, they also help farmers in accessing new markets, as international buyers can not only trace the source of their products but also access farmer records that confirm certification status.

A range of digital track and trace tools are emerging, with many projects still in their pilot phases. To improve the quality and reach of its information delivery and certification training service, the Rainforest Alliance developed a Farmer Training App. The app allows farmers to track their progress toward meeting certification requirements by logging any training they have completed. The Rainforest Alliance is now using the app in its digital IMS pilot for farm cooperatives. The objective is to ensure that data is available via the app for record keeping and analysis, to inform the planning process, develop improvement plans and streamline the auditing process. Also, GPRS location data generated from the app allows auditors to geo-locate farmers and their farms easily.

Faced with the same challenges in supporting certification compliance via pen and paper, Producers Direct has developed a farmer-led data collection app. The tool allows farmers to conduct their own record keeping, capturing and tracking their day-to-day on-farm activities using a simplified log-book paper-based collection tool. The data collected by farmers is then aggregated and analysed by youth groups at its Centres of Excellence, to generate advisory for the farmers on how to track their farm processes and manage their cash flow. This solution allows for a reduction in the cost of certification and audits, increases visibility and efficiency Rainforest Alliance administrators, and minimises non-compliance by mitigating risks before problems occur.

While The RainForest Alliance And Producers Direct have developed their own tools to support traceability and certification requirements, a range of solutions are coming to market. For example, Mezzanine, a Vodafone-owned company specialised in digital enterprise solutions, developed Connected Farmer, a farmer management solution that allows agribusinesses to digitise operations with farmers registration, input provision management, communication and payment via mobile money. The solution has a track and trace component improving visibility into last mile operations. At Mobile 360 – Africa 2018, Stephen Kinuthia, the Regional Manager for East Africa explained the role telcos can play in digitising Agriculture for the smallholder farmers and Agribusiness. The Mezzanine platform that is telco and regional agnostic allows agribusinesses to register a group of farmers as their suppliers, capture transactions at the point of delivery and communicate volumes, quality and price to the farmers. The tool is integrated with mobile money and enables payments and e-receipts to be generated, allowing them to build a transaction history with farmers. Over time the solution has improved farmer loyalty and trust to Agribusiness while improving operational efficiency.

The GSMA mAgri programme is working with mobile operators and ag-tech companies to enable the digitisation of the agricultural last mile. While our main focus so far has been on the opportunity to digitise agricultural business-to-person payments for the procurement of crops, we are increasingly looking at using the mobile phone as a tool to create digital farmer and farm profiles and support traceability and certification processes.

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